Personnel: Al Scorch (vocals, guitar, banjo); Charlie Malave (vocals, cello); Sima Cunningham (vocals); Felipe Tobar (violin); Ryan Koenig (harmonica); Dorian Gehring (accordion); Chloe Feoranzo (clarinet); Justin Amolsch (French horn); Cris Castellan (drums).
Recording information: Foxhall, Chicago, IL; MINBAL, Chicago, IL.
Photographer: Alexis Ellers.
Al Scorch lives and makes music in Chicago, and the soul of the city echoes all through his second studio album, 2016's Circle Round the Signs. If Scorch's music is often rooted in the sounds of the past, with acoustic instruments dominating the arrangements, Circle Round the Signs feels like the long-lost soundtrack to Carl Sandburg's poetic celebration of the City of the Big Shoulders, with a dash of Nelson Algren for seasoning. Scorch's instrument is the banjo, and he attacks his instrument with a mixture of virtuoso technique and creative violence, bringing a decidedly big-city sound to an instrument usually associated with rural music forms. Scorch's band features clarinet, cello, and violin along with bass and drums, and while the arrangements nod to jazz and folk, they approach this music with the passion and force of a crack rock & roll band. Scorch's songs walk a tightrope between the past and the present day, as the bootlegger's tale of "Everybody Out" echoes modern-day violence in the Windy City, and "Poverty Draft" ponders the fate of poor Southerners ending up in the military rather than Northern manufacturing plants but still not finding their way out of a cycle of poverty and death. Scorch's voice has a clean, strong Midwestern timbre, and he's capable of making his emotions clear without overselling his songs, and the scrappy fury of his band, the Country Soul Ensemble, is a superb match for these songs. Al Scorch is a top-notch storyteller who suggests a poetic version of Studs Terkel, and his music is every bit as strong. If anyone on the current Chicago music scene has the makings of a major artist, it's Al Scorch, and Circle Round the Signs is an album that deserves and demands a wide hearing. ~ Mark Deming